You don't need to panic buy! First came 'Black Friday'; now comes 'Cyber Monday'
But do they represent marketing ploys or real consumer trends?
It started out as a marketing wheeze in the US: Black Friday, a discount shopping extravaganza that follows Thanksgiving weekend and marks the start of the Christmas shopping season. This year, UK retailers really took the ball and ran with it, producing frenzy last Friday in the UK. (Help is at hand next weekend; see final paragraph for details.)
There was "bedlam" at an Asda store in west Belfast, where a woman was taken to hospital with a suspected broken wrist after hundreds of customers battled to get their hands on just 24 television sets that were on sale for £99, reduced from £179.
Now, though, the US online-retailers' riposte – the underpriced, overhyped Cyber Monday – has also taken hold here. British customers are expected to fire up their computers and tablets and indulge in a record-breaking orgy of online retail therapy.
The British Online Retailing Association (BritORA) reports that the next two weeks will be "critical for online stores". Adrian Quine, the trade body's director, says: "There's a direct correlation between the sales we're expecting to tomorrow and the feel-good factor people are seeing off the back of recent positive recovery figures."
Over the course of last year's Cyber Monday, the online giant Amazon received orders for 3.5 million items, at a rate of around 41 per second. This year, the firm is expecting to beat that, while the payment card giant Visa said that it expected there to be 7.7 million online transactions by its customers tomorrow, equating to £450m in orders; £312,500 a minute, or £5,208 every second – a rise of 16 per cent on last year.
Despite the marketing hype, Cyber Monday may not really be the busiest online shopping day of the year, says Richard Lim of the British Retail Consortium (BRC): "The following week could challenge that title. Faster delivery times and the growing popularity of click-and-collect means customers are prepared to leave ordering online closer to Christmas." Mr Quine agreed that the day was "slightly arbitrary", but added that "there's no doubt how important the next few weeks are for online retailers".
What is known is that an increasing proportion of our Christmas shopping will be done on our mobiles and tablets, according to figures from the BRC and BritORA. John Lewis has seen its mobile orders more than double, with 42 per cent of the firm's web traffic now coming from smartphones and tablets. Mark Lewis, director of online retail at the firm, said "Increasingly, people are shopping later in the evening on their tablet or phone, while watching television on the sofa. Or people shop first thing in the morning when they switch off their phone's alarm clock, check Twitter and see a link to a product. Before they know it, they're shopping before they've even got out of bed."
Some retail experts have questioned whether the scenes of consumers battling over bargains are the result of "over-hype", and are primarily confined to London and the South of England. Steve Musson, associate professor in economic geography at the University of Reading, said: "All the data – including a report published on Friday from the Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce – shows that retail performance is still heavily biased towards London and the South-east."
If all of this retail noise is too much for you, next weekend will see another more refined tradition arriving from America. Saturday will see hundreds of shops and local communities take part in Britain's first Small Business Saturday, which hopes to celebrate independent shops and the "gems" among neighbourhood retailers. Launched four years ago in the US by American Express, it has seen customers returning to their high streets; an initiative embraced by companies here that are keen to level the playing field with retail giants, and supported by the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, among others.
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